“GASLAND” — a real gas, but too much hot air
“Gasland” – which plays Wednesday at the Sunrise – garnered an Academy Award nomination for film maker Josh Fox, who also stars. It is an absorbing, sometimes frightening depiction of the dangers and damage Fox thinks result from modern mining natural gas methods.
In one startling scene, a man holds a lighter to his kitchen faucet as he opens the tap. What comes out is a burst of flame and a terrifying ball of fire. It’s a stunning shot, dramatically exploited by Fox.
Now, this is a movie review and not a story about gas mining. As a movie review, consider it a rave, but a qualified rave. “Gasland” is one terrific movie. It’s not all true, but that’s the nature of this genre. “Gasland” is a beautiful, near-textbook example of agitprop theater. “Agitprop” – short for agitation propaganda – is designed to agitate, to alarm, to “sound the alarum” and stir protest. It is not objective, though it must appear to be to do its job.
“Gasland” warns of dangers and environmental damage Fox blames on hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” for short. Water, chemicals, and sand are injected under high pressure to fracture shale beds deep in the earth. Bits of sand remain to keep the fractures open and release trapped natural gas for extraction.
Some say it’s perfectly safe. Some say the process needs regulation and careful monitoring. Some want it banned. As I say, this isn't about that question, but about the movie. Here's the deal: like it, enjoy it, but don’t trust it. Fox begs many questions, distorts many facts, and overstates his case again and again. But he’s good at it. Even though tilted, his views are quite convincing. That makes for enticing theater but trouble for truth.
“Gasland” is panic propaganda but very well done. Go see it, but then do your own research and check every claim. You’ll find references to this picture all over the web. Its Oscar nomination was as a feature documentary, but “Gasland” is not a documentary. It’s an anti-commercial about as blatant as anything we’ll see in next year’s presidential election – only better done, as I say.
Fox already has lots of folks scared to death that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing will pollute their well water and cause earthquakes. That is particularly relevant here, because the Cumnock shale bed lies thousands of feet under eastern Moore and upper Lee counties. State geologists say the Cumnock may hold enough natural gas for four decades of the state’s energy needs.
There are real worries about how this mining process has been handled. In April a Pennsylvania gas well exploded, sending thousands of gallons of fracking fluid – and its mix of chemicals – into local creeks. Seven families had to evacuate. France began moves to ban fracking, while in the U.K. the parliamentary committee on energy supported the practice.
In Texas, the state legislature just passed a bill requiring drillers to make the chemical composition of their fracking fluids public – even though the Lone Star state has seen no ground water contamination at all according to the bill’s sponsor.
Because gas-bearing shale lies many thousands of feet below the surface, there is no chance fracking fluid can migrate to the water table; geologists say that is geologically impossible. There is clearly more to this story than Fox tells – and at least one of the best parts of the story he does tell is misleading at the very least, an out-and-out lie at worst.
That flaming faucet was in Weld County, Colorado. Trouble is, the man’s well was checked out by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. None of the methane fireball in his kitchen came from gas wells. In fact, methane gas in water wells there has been a well-documented phenomenon for a long time.
In case you’re interested, here’s a link to the conservation commission’s report: Colorado report.
“Gasland incorrectly attributes several cases of water well contamination in Colorado to oil and gas development when our investigations determined that the wells in question contained biogenic methane that is not attributable to such development," the commission said.
There may well be unexpected risks from directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Much tighter regulation and oversight may be needed, like a number of changes Colorado itself made. Trouble is, overstating the case as Fox does will not spur such a move. It will undermine it — pun intended.
I admire “Gasland” the way people admire swastikas and Nazi uniforms: well done, but not to be trusted.
Maybe fracking is too risky to use, maybe not. That’s a technical question calling for study, research, and well-written regulations. I know you can’t answer it based on Fox’s carefully painted horrors in “Gasland.”
I liked “Dracula,” too – but I don’t believe in vampires.
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